It is mid-July, three weeks to the day before Major League Baseball will announce that, starting in 2010, it is awarding the exclusive rights to produce trading cards with MLB team logos and nicknames to Topps. I am in Carlsbad, Calif., receiving a tour of the headquarters of Upper Deck, which has produced licensed baseball cards for the past 20 years and is Topps's only remaining competitor in a cratering market. We're in a fenced-off area of the warehouse known as the Game-Worn Jersey Room. It is where memorabilia go to slaughter, cut up into hundreds of pieces that will eventually be affixed to insert (or chase) cards, which are placed in random packs in the hopes of enticing collectors.
More than 10,000 chopped-up items are stored in plastic bags on rows of metal shelves. For my visit Mark Shaunessy, the supervisor of this operation, has laid out an assortment of yet-to-be-cut artifacts on a table, including jerseys belonging to LeBron James and Grady Sizemore (with real dirt stains!), a bat of Derek Jeter's and baseballs signed by Joe DiMaggio and Walter Johnson. In the middle of this collection is something that was certainly neither worn nor used in major league baseball, let alone the NBA, NFL or NHL: a sequined, neon-green strip of fabric.
"That," Shaunessy says, "came from Miley Cyrus. It was her headband. We're going to do cuts of that too."
Would you believe that a 16-year-old's hair accessory is far from the strangest thing on display? To its left is a Baggie labeled FRAGILE: TITANIC COAL—containing actual coal pulled from the ship's wreckage. Chris Carlin, the marketing manager leading my tour, informs me that in a baseball set called Goodwin Champions, coming out in September, "there are going to be landmark insert cards: stuff like Titanic coal, the sands of Iwo Jima, Dead Sea salt." Inside perhaps the last packs of fully licensed MLB cards that Upper Deck will ever make, buyers might also find equine hair, with actual hair-sample cards of Kentucky Derby winners Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. (The human hairs of Beethoven and Che Guevara were contained in a pack earlier this year.)
Farther to our left is a briefcase. Its brass nameplate reads S.D. JR., for Sammy Davis Jr. Its leather, its lining, perhaps even the nameplate will soon be cut up and attached to cards. "Just got these in—they're Farrah Fawcett's," says Shaunessy, referring to a pair of olive cargo pants. They seem absurdly small. Carlin wonders whether he could even fit one leg in the waist.
The sports trading card industry is dealing with an uncomfortable present and an uncertain future. The sales of cards peaked in 1991 at $1.2 billion, according to estimates by Sports Collector's Digest, but slid to $400 million by the turn of the century and to $200 million last year. MLB is banking on Topps, now owned by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, to re-attract kids and streamline product offerings. Upper Deck put out 16 baseball sets in 2009 and says that it will continue to make cards with its MLB Players Association license in 2010, though none of the subjects can appear bearing a team logo. A lawsuit by Upper Deck challenging Topps's exclusive deal is also a possibility, a company source told SI last week.
Even so, there's no guarantee that the existing customer base—hard-core hobbyists for whom even jersey swatches are becoming passé—will stay on board. Insert cards have been around for years. Will pop-culture ephemera be enough of a draw? When someone's pack yields a poly-cotton swatch that once hugged the backside of a Charlie's Angel, what will be the reaction? Arousal? Shock? Or, worse, indifference?
You have to go back 20 years to find a landmark baseball card: Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1989 Upper Deck Star Rookie, the number 1 card in that set. That was Upper Deck's rookie year too, and the company stormed onto the scene that March with a wildly successful premium product. Branded the Collector's Choice, it was twice as expensive as its peers' (99 cents per pack, compared with 49 cents for such top competitors as Topps, Fleer, Donruss and Score) and twice the quality (packaged in foil with color photos on both sides and a hologram on the back). But this is what mattered: Upper Deck had the undisputed Griffey rookie card. Topps and Score didn't have the foresight even to include the Mariners' 19-year-old phenom in their first-edition sets, while Donruss and Fleer were virtual afterthoughts in the hobby's frenzy over Upper Deck's premiere.
By the time, say, Derek Jeter came along in the 1990s, the market had become oversaturated with Upper Deck copycats; the Yankees shortstop had eight different rookie cards. When Albert Pujols arrived in 2001, he had 43. In '89 Griffey stood alone, and his card's value has held up reasonably well: at a high end of $40 in the most recent Beckett Baseball. But as his 21-year, surefire Hall of Fame career comes to an unremarkable end in Seattle, it appears unlikely that baseball cards will regain the cultural significance they had 20 years ago. The Kid's Upper Deck debut could very well be the last iconic rookie card ever made.
The image of Griffey that became part of collecting lore, with his blue turtleneck and 'fro-mullet tucked beneath his cap, was doctored. In his home office in Corona, Calif., 75 miles north of Upper Deck's headquarters, Tom Geideman hands me a Polaroid that had been sitting atop a binder of Griffey cards and says, "This—it's cut off a little bit—but this is the original photo." Griffey's wearing the navy-blue hat of Seattle's Class A affiliate, the San Bernardino Spirit, whose logo is a silver S over a red star. The picture was taken by the late V.J. Lovero, an Angels team photographer who shot Griffey and his father for a Sports Illustrated feature in 1988. Lovero sold one of his extras to Upper Deck, which airbrushed the hat royal blue, erased the star,made the S yellow and—ta-da!—completed the makeover.
Geideman has the Polaroid because he was the one who, at age 18, put Kid Griffey on the card. In June 1988, when Bill Hemrick, the owner of The Upper Deck, an Anaheim card store, Richard McWilliam, a CPA, and Paul Sumner, a publishing company executive, founded the Upper Deck Company in Yorba Linda, Calif., they made Geideman, a rabid card collector, their first employee. They paid him $15 an hour, gave him business cards that said product analyst and entrusted him with choosing players for the 700 cards in that first edition.
Geideman set aside the first 26 spots for a subset called Star Rookies, and the logical number 1 card was Mets wunderkind Gregg Jefferies, who had been a two-time minor league player of the year; Brewers infielder Gary Sheffield and Padres catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. were also reasonable choices. Griffey had been injured late in 1988 and didn't seem likely to make the Mariners' big league roster in '89. But Geideman, whose birthday was less than six months after Griffey's, had been tracking Junior through Baseball America and believed he had the biggest upside. When Upper Deck did its first test runs of the '89 set, Geideman told the press workers not to discard the number 1 Griffeys. "I remember saying," he tells me, 'You don't want to rip up hundred-dollar bills.'"
Sets are defined by their rookies, and the Griffey pick was a defining set for Upper Deck. After making the Mariners out of spring training in '89, Griffey was an immediate sensation. Geideman, who briefly attended Cal State-San Bernardino, dropped out of school to work full time at Upper Deck after it relocated to Carlsbad. He would leave the company in 1994 to become the marketing director for The Score Board, a card-and-memorabilia company in Cherry Hill, N.J., and when it declared bankruptcy in '98, Geideman joined with a coworker to form SAGE, a niche sports-card brand that makes autographed sets of NFL prospects that are released during the window between the end of college football season and the start of the NFL season.
Griffey, however, is still a presence in Geideman's Spanish Mission ranch: In a display case just off the kitchen is a triptych with Griffey's '88 San Bernardino road jersey, autographed on the front; an '89 Mariners home jersey; and a 2000 Reds jersey, when he was wearing number 30 instead of 24. Geideman also has cards mixed into the display, and after we're done examining the jerseys, he points to an Upper Deck prototype of Lions running back Barry Sanders, from '91, the year of Brett Favre's debut.
"That was the year we started doing football," Geideman says, "and the guy doing that set felt the need to make his mark and put a guy at Number 1."
There's a reason no one remembers that card: "He picked Dan McGwire."
Before a Mariners game in Baltimore in June, I ask Griffey about the '89 card. He's Upper Deck's longest-tenured spokesman, and this year the company bought 89 of his rookies back from dealers, asked him to autograph them with the inscription 20 YEARS, then inserted them into baseball packs. He says he was never in awe of the card (which fetched $150 as recently as 2000), having already grown up in major league clubhouses. He points to the printout of the card that I'm holding and says, "That hairstyle, that hat. That's why we don't keep it around the house, so my son doesn't see it."
Trey, his 15-year-old son, is sitting two feet away, traveling with the team on summer break. It seems that he hasn't been effectively sheltered from the card. He's rocking the same hairstyle his dad did in '89. "I've already seen it," Trey says. "Grandma showed it to me."
Trey says that he has no interest in collecting cards. "I bet if I brought home a pack of football cards, you'd look at them," Griffey says. Trey is big into football, but his dad's suggestion elicits only a shrug.
"What do you think about now, son?" Griffey asks. "Girls?"
Card shops have died off at an alarming rate, down from some 5,000 in the early '90s to 500 now, according to Sports Collector's Digest—but the original Upper Deck shop in Anaheim still exists, albeit under a different name at a different location, neither of which Geideman is completely sure about. Our first stop is at its original location, a mini mall at the corner of State College and La Palma, in a dreary section of town. Its old address—1050 State College Boulevard—no longer exists. A guy running the mini mall's pet store tells us that the shop moved a short drive south on State College 17 years ago.
The shop has been renamed Win Lose or Draw Sportswear, and when we get there, Bruce Gershenoff is the only one inside. He bought The Upper Deck from Hemrick in 1988 for $50,000, and the shop is now a '90s time warp: Aside from a shelf of New Era fitted hats, most of the clothing hasn't been updated in 15 years. After Geideman reintroduces himself (they met in '88), Gershenoff explains why he changed the name. When the card market started crashing in '93 and Upper Deck's corporate offices fell behind on payments for services and supplies, their bad credit seeped into Gershenoff's rating and hampered his ability to restock the store.
He incorporated as Win Lose or Draw in '95 but had already given up on cards a year earlier, around the time of the baseball strike, a tipping point for the card industry. "My sales from '88 to '92 were $10,000 to $13,000 a month, and the cost of goods was only $1,000 to $2,000 a month," Gershenoff says. "Then they started putting out so much product, raising the price on packs and putting in chase cards that caused people to stop trying to make sets. Kids ran away. Hobbyists got aggravated because they couldn't afford everything, and speculators backed off because of over-saturation. By '94 my sales were $3,000 a month, and new products were up to $5,000 a month. I had to get out."
He still has some old packs near the cash register. I ask what he does with them.
"I don't even do a hundred a month in cards now," Gershenoff says, "so if somebody comes in and spends $25, I give them a 50-cent pack: '88 Score, '91 Fleer. If they spend $50, I give them a dollar pack: '91 Stadium Club, '91 Upper Deck. A lot of people say, 'I don't want them.' I'll ask, 'Maybe you have a neighbor who's been a good kid?' And sometimes they'll say, 'O.K., I've got a nephew or some Jack I can give them to,' but a lot of times it's just, 'No thanks. I've got a ton sitting at home and nothing to do with them.'"